Updated: Testimony concludes in vehicular manslaughter trial

Rita Campos exits the courtroom Thursday.

Rita Campos took the stand against allegations that she
committed vehicular manslaughter, and attorneys gave closing
statements in which they described different versions of the events
leading to the traffic collision that killed cyclist Bruce Finch
Friday.
Rita Campos took the stand against allegations that she committed vehicular manslaughter, and attorneys gave closing statements in which they described different versions of the events leading to the traffic collision that killed cyclist Bruce Finch Friday.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations for a verdict Monday morning, after Superior Court Judge Ronald Toff advises them on the charges they are considering.

In her testimony, Campos nervously repeated the claim that she did not move her car following the Oct. 5, 2008 traffic accident that resulted in Finch’s death, and that she told the investigating officer that she looked both ways before proceeding slowly into the cyclist’s path.

The accident happened at the intersection of Uvas and Little Uvas roads. Campos, driving a green Honda Civic, attempted to make a northbound left turn onto Uvas Road on her way to church, when she collided with Finch, who was riding a bicycle southbound on Uvas. Finch, 58 of Gilroy, was pronounced dead at the scene.

She testified Friday that as soon as she approached the intersection, she stopped and “glanced” to the left, then looked right. “My driving habits are to look both ways,” Campos said.

As she moved slowly past the stop sign, she continued looking right until she could see around a utility pole, vegetation and a real estate sign. As she was turning her head back to the left to determine the lane was clear of traffic, she heard a loud “bang,” which she determined moments later to be Finch crashing into the front of her car. She said she did not see Finch coming toward her car before she heard the collision.

Furthermore, she testified that she did not move her car, which was in the same position several feet behind the edge of Uvas Road when police arrived as it was when the collision happened. She said when she realized her car hit a cyclist, she became too anxious to trust herself to continue safely operating the car.

“I was shaking, I was scared,” she said on the witness stand.

California Highway Patrol officer Katherine Tritenbach contradicted Campos on both claims, throughout her testimony which started Thursday.

She said in three interviews with Campos during her investigation of the crash, that she asked the driver if she looked to the left before pulling the car past the stop sign and Campos said she did not. However, Tritenbach did not include her question in the investigation report, and said Friday that she did not have her notes at the trial.

Campos said she did not remember Tritenbach asking her that specific question.

And Tritenbach continued to testify that based on her lengthy investigation of the accident, which included an accident reconstruction, that Campos must have moved her car before police and witnesses arrived. A photo of the reconstruction, presented by the prosecutor, shows that Campos’ car was situated completely within the southbound lane of Uvas Road when the collision happened.

Her conclusion is based on the pattern of damage to Campos’ vehicle, the location of Finch’s body in the middle of Uvas Road when paramedics arrived and other evidence used to reconstruct the incident, Tritenbach said.

In his closing statement, defense attorney Richard Pointer maintained that Campos’ car was stopped where police found it at the time of the accident, and the evidence presented in the trial did not definitively conclude that her car could only have been in one location when it impacted with Finch and his bicycle.

He added that even if her car was in the middle of the road as the CHP investigation found, the vehicle code says at that point she would have had the right-of-way to proceed before Finch.

“There is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Campos violated the law,” Pointer said. “She was in a position where she had the right-of-way. If I’m going southbound (on Uvas Road) and I see that car I have to let it pass and slow down.”

Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Marcia Wallace said in her closing statements that Campos may not remember where her car was at the time of the collision, but the evidence suggested that she moved her car behind the stop sign before anyone else arrived. Campos is also guilty of driving unsafely, running a stop sign, and failing to yield the right-of-way to Finch, Wallace said.

“We’re not saying (Campos) wanted to kill (Finch),” Wallace said. “We’re asking her to take responsibility for her failure to look both ways, to yield the right-of-way, and to fully and completely stop.”

Earlier Friday, Finch’s wife Carolyn Finch testified briefly. On the witness stand she described a paper local road map, submitted as evidence by the prosecutor, on which her husband highlighted his normal cycling route on local rural roads – presumably the same route he was in the middle of when he died.

She told the court and jury that her husband started his route at the couple’s home on Sunflower Circle in Gilroy and planned to ride the “usual route” highlighted on the map, and return home by the early afternoon.

The DA’s office presented more than 40 pieces of evidence in the two-day trial, mostly consisting of photographs of damage to Campos’ vehicle, the accident scene, and views of the intersection where the accident occurred from the motorist’s perspective.

Also admitted into evidence were Finch’s Trek bicycle and his helmet, the latter of which showed visible damage.

After the impact with Finch, Campos exited the car to check the cyclist’s condition. She brought him a pillow and towel while witnesses who just missed the accident attempted to resuscitate him, she said Friday.

“This is a case in which you will find Ms. Campos’ conduct was reasonable under the circumstances,” Pointer told the jury of five women and eight men in his opening statement Thursday. “We hope you will conclude this was a tragic accident.”

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